Back in May, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, the juggernauts of the gaming industry issued statements in solidarity with Black Lives Matter while stating the need to do more to support their Black fans, creators and employees.
Xbox tweeted, “Xbox stands together with our fans, creators, colleagues, friends, and the entire African American & Black Community against systemic racism and injustice. We are proud to join with @Microsoft in amplifying Black and African American voices.”
PlayStation tweeted, “We will continue to work towards a future marked by empathy and inclusion and stand with our Black creators, players, employees, family, and friends.”
On October 23rd, Natasha Zinda — better known as Zombaekillz on Twitch — tweeted at PlayStation that she “noticed a lack of representation of WOC, [specifically] Black women, reviewing your console.” Since Zinda is herself a Black woman, a streamer, and hardware reviewer, she decided to shoot her shot and offer her services in case PlayStation was having trouble finding Black reviewers for their latest console.
On November 15th, popular YouTube gaming channel Inside Gaming invited Zinda and fellow Black female streamer Stephanie “Nnesaga” Ijoma to talk about how console makers can support people of colour. Zinda explained why she tweeted at PlayStation saying that, at the time, she felt that it was “hollow” that PlayStation would release a Black Lives Matter PS4 theme and promote Spider-Man: Miles Morales — a game starring a Black Latinx teenager — without also choosing Black voices to review its console.
On November 23rd, a full month after her initial tweet, a video went up on YouTube in response to that Inside Gaming interview, inciting a disgusting and persistent online campaign of violence, misogyny, and racism that included death threats, doxxing, and invitations for Zinda to commit suicide — all for the crime asking PlayStation to hold true to its pledges of support for the Black community and put its marketing where its mouth was.
Zinda, in a Discord call, described her work on Twitch as, “big, fat, Black chaotic content. I’m, big, fat, Black, and chaotic but I have a community that is focused and very intentional about this focus on radical kindness.”
Zinda hosted a charity stream for No Kid Hungry, was featured in a panel on Blackness with Khalief Adams of Spawn on Me, conducted a roundtable discussion featuring other Black streamers after the Breonna Taylor verdict, and even hosted an AMA detailing her own experience with incarceration. Zinda embraced what she calls “uncomfortable conversations” because she wanted to incorporate her lived experiences into a world where the majority of such experiences aren’t reflective of her own.
“You see a lot of perspectives and hot takes constantly from white people. It’s overwhelmingly deafening,” she said. “What I try to do is let people see us in our most human moments, and I try to be hyper transparent with people so that they can just look the world the way I look at it.”
Her brand of “fat, Black, radical kindness,” is working for her. She writes reviews for Tom’s Hardware, was featured in Time magazine, on Good Morning America, the Kinda Funny show, on IGN’s Podcast Beyond, and has a successful Twitch stream that was made partner during Twitch’s online Glitchcon event — all within the last six months.
In other words, she poppin’.
— Twitch (@Twitch) November 14, 2020
As the next-generation Xbox rolled out of Microsoft warehouses and into the hands of streamers and influencers, Zinda noticed an interesting similarity shared by those who were receiving the hallowed console.
“Well, around the time that console started going out,” Zinda said. “I noticed a disparity in who [consoles] were being sent to and what the reviewers of those consoles look like. I noticed it was primarily white.”
Before finishing her thought, Zinda had to duck out for a quick second to tend to one of her kids. Zinda’s been sick lately. Thankfully it’s pneumonia and not the coronavirus but still, dealing with kids while being sick is according to her “part of the ride” of being a mum.
“[I] pointed out that there’s this disparity,” she continued. “Everyone we were seeing who was getting the console was white, and overwhelmingly male.”
I, too, remember when the Xbox Series S/X started arriving at influencers’ and reviewers’ doors ahead of its worldwide launch day on November 10th, and noticing the same similarities between who got to post “look what I got” Tweets. Gaming has always been an overwhelmingly white and male space, something Xbox executive Phil Spencer noted needs to change.
“We don’t need more people like me in our organisation,” Spencer, who is white, said in an interview with Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo. “We need a more diverse team.”
While Spencer was talking specifically about diverse leadership at Microsoft, there exists a desperate need for more diversity in the gaming industry in every area — at Spencer’s executive level, in my own world of journalism, and in Zinda’s field of streamers and influencers. And while there is no lack of Black and Brown talent on Twitch, there is a dearth of diversity in whom the gaming industry grants access — who gets the review codes for the newest games and who gets their hands on the hot new consoles.
“Where are people who look like me reviewing tech?” Zinda asked herself as she watched influencers, reviewers, and fellow streamers get Xboxes and later PlayStations. “Where are the Black women?”
This conversation wasn’t new to Zinda. It’s one she’s frequently had with peers over who gets access in the video game industry and why. “‘These people are bigger than you guys. You guys shouldn’t get them first,’” she said, repeating arguments people offered in response to her questions of why the streamers chosen to review consoles are overwhelmingly white and male. “And I’m like, bigger doesn’t matter because I believe in impact over numbers. It’s something that we believe in very much. And how did these guys get so big? Having access to stuff like this does give you a competitive edge.”
Zinda is describing a kind of feedback loop that works to keep marginalised creators shut out of the opportunities that allow them to grow. If a console maker only chooses to support the biggest streamers with the biggest followings, who again skew white, able-bodied, cis and male — that exclusive access increases the profile of those streamers, further guaranteeing only streamers who are white, able-bodied, cis, and male will continue to recieve those opportunities. By choosing to support marginalised creators — Black folk, queer folk, disabled folk — console makers can break the loop and affect the change they seem to desperately want, yet can never show progress toward whenever its time to show a diversity report.
Since she was a highly visible Black woman with the credentials and the experience to review a console, if console makers wanted to support Black creators like they keep saying they want to, why not start with her?
She made her tweet and followed it up with an email to Sony’s PR department including a pitch deck with her stats and numbers — basically doing what any influencer does when courting brands for sponsorship.
“Sony has been very vocal about diversity and representation this year,” the email reads. “And I would love to see that paired with action and uplifting the marginalised people that consume their products. Thank you for your time and consideration.”
There’s a saying in the Black community, one I personally hear in my mother’s voice whenever I recall a younger me expressing a desire to do anything: “If you gon’ talk about it, be about it.” To be sure, the phrase exists in every community in some form, but this particular version seems to best describe what happened. PlayStation talked about it, so Zinda demanded they be about it.
And it worked.
“Sony came back to me and said, I got some good news. I’d like to send you a console for launch.”
On November 11th the fruits of her labour paid off and she excitedly posted on social media that she had indeed received a PlayStation 5 from Sony for review.
— ZombaeKillz (I luv rocco)(She/Her) (@ZombaeKillz) November 11, 2020
Ironically, after her initial October 23rd tweet Zinda said she got an email out of the blue from Xbox asking if she had heard about receiving a Series S. When she said she hadn’t, Microsoft apologised, citing a miscommunication and that she was on the list to review the console and would be receiving one shortly. She got it on November 2nd.
— ZombaeKillz (I luv rocco)(She/Her) (@ZombaeKillz) November 2, 2020
Then people, who somehow thought she was not deserving of either, got pissed, responding with a targeted campaign of hate. In a now removed video, Griffin Gaming made a bad faith argument essentially stating that Zinda only received the consoles not because of any work she put into developing her audience and portfolio but because she guilted Sony and Microsoft through using the race card. The 29-minute-long video incited harassment against Zinda causing her to ask her followers to report the video and have it taken down, which prompted Griffin Gaming to preemptively remove it, but not before posting a shorter video accusing Zinda of “false flagging” his content.
After the “false flagging” incident, known vector of harassment The Quartering, and Comicsgate blog Bounding Into Comics, picked up on the issue and that’s when everything, by that point already intolerable, got way worse.
“[Trolls] started to come after me more and more,” she explained. “More videos spun off, mocking my appearance. There were photoshopped images of me being put underneath posts I started with photos of my head on a lynched body. I started to get photos of white guys having sex with large Black women with my face photoshopped onto them. I started to get rape and death threats in my emails. I started to get a lot of hatred. For the past nine days it’s been it’s been hell.”
There’s an expectation for Black women to behave a certain way. Unlike in white women where aggressiveness is prized as a way of “smashing the patriarchy,” in order for Black women to be taken seriously we must be affable, humble, quiet, and ever ready to sacrifice for others. The insidiousness of misogynoir demonizes in Black women what is expected in our white, female peers — our confidence becomes arrogance, our outspokenness becomes too loud. Zinda competently advocated for herself — a behaviour often rewarded when men and white women do it, but less so when it’s a non-white woman.
“I wasn’t saying I’m the biggest Black streamer. I wasn’t saying, ‘I’m the best, I have the most numbers.’ I just said ‘Hey, I’m kind of the most visible in the space right now. I’m the hot commodity. And I kinda am. And so, I acknowledged where I was, and I think that pissed people off. To just be confident.”
When I watch those videos, my only takeaway is that these people are angry that Zinda dared to act in any way outside the prescribed boundary for Black women. Their arguments that Zinda used race to weasel her way into free consoles certainly have no merit; one person cannot guilt a billion dollar company into doing anything that it doesn’t want to do. And so, because a Black woman said with her chest who she was and demanded console makers show the barest bit of accountability for words they already said, she was punished with wave after wave of harassment, the ramifications of which still shake Zinda to this day.
“It’s nonstop. They’ve gone on every platform that I’m on and harassed me. They’ve hate raided me while I did my charity fundraisers for No Kid Hungry. They’ve come into every stream that I’ve had.”
I’ve seen the pictures they’ve posted with images of her distorted face, and read the tweets inviting her to commit suicide. But more than the fear a harassment campaign like this inspires or the psychological damage it does, Zinda described silence — of her own voice and the more sinister silence from people who have the power to condemn this kind of behaviour — as the worst.
“When people create these hate videos, what they’re doing is ratioing me out of the picture. It suppresses my reach even further. […] Every time they make another video it pushes my discoverability further down the line. That hurts my ability to be discovered by people who actually want to consume my content. It makes it so that I can’t monetise and earn better when they come into my streams and my Twitter chats. They’re hurting my opportunities for brands and game devs who want to work with me. They are literally cutting my legs out from underneath me.”
“This is a problem,” she continued. “Our industry has a racism problem. And no one’s talking about what this really looks like. Xbox just came out with their comment about how they think one of the worst things in the games industry right now is console wars. Is it? Is console wars our worst thing, or is racism and gatekeeping Blackness out of games the worst thing in the games industry? I don’t just want to say Black people, because I see my disabled friends get bullied and harassed, so much too. I see a lack of Native American people in the games industry. I see a lack of a lot of otherness in our industry and we have to do better.”
I asked Zinda what “do better” looks like to her. “I want us to focus on dragging these people out of the games communities, to say ‘you do not belong here.’ I want us to deplatform hate and start holding these platforms accountable.”
Despite this experience, Zinda continues to stream and still thinks of the gaming industry as being a good and transformative place for her and others.
“‘Gaming is for everyone,’ I put that out as a hashtag and a lot of people retweeted it and I believe that with all my heart. Gaming being shown through a prism of otherness is so powerful. Politicians are starting to see the power behind gaming. It’s why we see AOC over on Twitch. We know the power that lies in our community. We have to wield it very responsibly, and I need these big heads of the industry to start wielding their power responsibly for us and to use their shield to protect those most vulnerable in their communities. Period.”
In other words, gaming industry, be about it.